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Gov. Larry Hogan announced during a press conference on Aug. 27 that all Maryland jurisdictions are authorized to reopen public schools. The announcement comes just more than a week before Baltimore County Public Schools is set to begin a virtual beginning to the 2020-21 school year.

Gov. Larry Hogan made a stunning and unexpected announcement on Aug. 27, stating that all Maryland counties are authorized to reopen public schools.

Public schools in Maryland have been closed to traditional learning since March, when Hogan issued a state of emergency and ordered all public schools to close. Maryland and Ohio were the first two states to close schools statewide, Hogan said during his opening remarks. Baltimore County Public Schools announced last month that it will do a virtual reopening to start the school year, and doesn’t plan to reopen schools until after Jan. 29.

Hogan cited the state’s 3.3 percent positivity as a sign of success during the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that the current rate is an 87 percent drop from its peak (26.91 percent) nearly four months ago. The state took aggressive measures early on, ordering all nonessential businesses to close and restricting public gatherings to just 10 people. Various Dundalk traditions were canceled this year as a result, such as the Dundalk Heritage Fair, the Dundalk Independence Day Parade and Concerts in the Park.

“With our safe, effective and gradual reopening plan, the development of a robust contract tracing operation, our successful long-term testing strategy, and most importantly, with the vigilance of the people of Maryland, our mitigation efforts have been extremely successful.,” Hogan said.

“As of today, Maryland’s positivity rate has been under five percent for 67 consecutive days, since June 25. It has been under four percent for 19 consecutive days, since Aug. 8. We have seen dramatic improvements of positivity rates of every single one of our most populous jurisdictions in the state.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both recommend that positivity rates remain at or below the five percent threshold before moving forward actions to reopen. Last week, all 24 Maryland jurisdictions fell below five percent for the first time, Hogan said.

Reopening public schools this fall has been a hotly-debated topic in communities across the United States. Elected officials, administrators, teachers, parents and students have expressed their opinions about reopening during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidance last month the harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant.

“Aside from a child’s home, no other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school,” the CDC said. The CDC’s guidance on the importance of reopening schools can be read here.

Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski, Jr. issued a statement a few hours after Hogan’s press conference ended, expressing his disappointment in Hogan’s announcement. “As County Executive and a former teacher, I want nothing more than to get all our kids back to the classroom as quickly as possible—especially our youngest learners and students with disabilities and special needs,” Olszewski said. “But we can only do that when we know we can keep our students and educators safe. Governor Hogan has been absent for months on calls where I and other local leaders have been asking for reopening guidelines from the state.”

“Now, days before schools open, the Governor and Superintendent [Karen] Salmon have finally released their guidance, while dangling $10 million to convince historically underfunded systems to open—whether they are ready or not. That’s not leadership. Maryland students and families deserve better.”

Earlier in the week, Salmon introduced a proposal for students to receive 3.5 hours of live instruction each day. The proposal came just a week before students and teachers in some jurisdictions began the 2020-21 academic year. The timing of the proposal was met with pushback from educators across the state.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association and an elementary teacher in Baltimore County, said in a statement that ripping up local school schedules already in place would cause confusion, stress and chaos. This week, the Maryland State Board of Education rejected Salmon’s proposal, a move which Bost commended.

“The conversation at today’s State Board of Education meeting would have been useful months ago,” Bost said in her statement. “having it today, after the school year has begun in many areas, is incredibly out of touch with the realities that educators, parents, and students are dealing with every day and the hard work that they have done and that is ahead. The poor communication and sudden changes coming from the State Department of Education and state leadership are deeply concerning and in dire need of improvement.”

“While this gives districts time to meet new standards, we are also deeply concerned with discussions of looking to move to expanding in-person learning later this year without also expanding resources or measures to protect the health and safety of educators and students.”

Bost said that educators, parents and students all want stability and the time to focus on teaching and learning at the beginning of the school year, and that all involved must have consistent support, not last-minute surprises, from state leaders.

On Aug. 28, BCPS released a statement from Superintendent Darryl Williams addressing the announcement, saying that the plan for a virtual opening on Sept. 8 is still in place, and administrators will begin looking at hybrid models already created to include plans for small groups of students to return to buildings.

“As we implement this small-group phased-in approach and are sure students and staff are safe, we will continue to evaluate the implementation and add groups of students until all have returned to school,” Williams said. “{span}This will take time to implement, but we promise to keep you informed as we move forward.

Williams’s full statement can be read here.

Parents and guardians are encouraged to continually check the BCPS website, www.bcps.org, for updates concerning when those plans for phased-in small groups will be put into action.